The contrasting styles of London churches reflect tensions within Catholicism, says CHARLES GIBSON
Catholic Churches of London by Denis Evinson, Sheffield Academic Press, £16.95
NOT LONG AG() I was dining with a friend when he asked me about a building he described as something between a cinema and a crematorium. It was, needless to say, a Catholic church put up in the early seventies, and it is one of the many merits of Denis Evinson's work that I was able to find the offending structure with ease, and learn
how the monstrosity came into being. Let it be said at once, however, that the author is a totally dispassionate chronicler of architecture. In fact, one weakness of this book, although perhaps inevitable in a work which began under quasi-official patronage, is a total neutrality of perspective that does make for slightly anodyne prose.
This book arose as a series of contributions to the reports of the Liturgy Commission of the Episcopal Conference on the fabric and contents of diocesan churches. It has been expanded into book form and well illustrated with photographs, sketches and plans. Every Catholic church which lies within the boundaries of the old London County Council is included and some, notably Westminster Cathedral and the London Oratory, are given treatment in extenso.
This is a most enjoyable work for dipping into, and one discovers something new at regular intervals. There is a church, for example, in Poplar, which resembles, for all the world, a Babylonian Ziggurat, and in Eversholt Street one, which judging by the artist's impression, could be Hadrian's Tomb.
Then there are some true gems. Evinson's description of The Church of the Holy Trinity, Brook Green, inspires one to head for Hammersmith post haste. Built only 22 years ago after Catholic Emancipation, it is perhaps more typical of the broad stream of English Catholicism in its restrained dedication and Decorated Gothic than the more flamboyant churches of the religious orders arising or planned in Mayfair or Kensington.
In his description of St Dominic's, Haverstock Hill, the author draws our attention to one problem which has always taxed the efforts of Catholic architects in this country, to wit, poverty. The persistent lack of funds left so many marvellous schemes unrealised. Even a church which has been more successful than most, that of the London Oratorians, has passed the century mark with its Campanile unbuilt; and Westminster Cathedral, as well, is without the gloriously golden mosaic-work which Bentley's designs promised. Indeed, in reading Dr Evin son's book, one is impressed again and again with what architects achieved on such slender means.
The often irregular plots of land upon which the buildings arose also created problems, and some of the solutions found, such as that at Spanish Place, are remarkably successful, especially in regard to the interior arrangement. Not enough, perhaps, is known of the politics of style and the author leaves this more or less unexplored. We know, for example, that the Oratorians wanted
an Italianate Church as they thought that appropriate for the Counter-Reformation spirituality of their founder. The Jesuits, on the other hand, chose Gothic, not a style, certainly, that one would immediately associate with their order. Their motive appears to have been a somewhat prudential one in that they wished to avoid a too alien image in early Victorian Britain. But might they have been guided by tensions within English Catholicism also?
One learns that before building could commence in Farm Street, Papal permission had to be sought to override the objection of Bishop Griffiths, who was not keen on their presence. This was at a time when Pugin was presenting Gothic as the only possible Christian architecture and people like William Maskell and Dr Rock were familiarising English churches with their medieval past. Apart from Pugin, whose most notable London church is St Thomas's in Fulham, now sadly marred by C ontemporary iconoclasm. the battle of the styles seemed to affect clients more than architects. It is indeed a testament to the versatility of men such as Henry Clutton, Bentley and others that they could work successfully in many idioms. A visitor to Farm Street's Sacred Heart Chapel could be forgiven were he not to recognise the same architect as one of the most uncompromisingly classical designs, albeit unexecuted, for the London Oratory.
All in all, we must thank Denis Evinson for producing such a useful tool for researchers and enjoyable gazetteer for the general public. A good index allows for the comparing of architects' churches. I suspect this work will remain a standard text for some time to come.